When Stanley Sanger took over as Union City’s superintendent of schools in July of 2003, he inherited one of the state’s worst performing districts. When he retired this summer, he left behind one of the highest-achieving school systems in New Jersey. Although he is quick to point out that the transition was the result of hard work by a lot of people, it was clearly his vision that led the change.
Under his leadership, Union City added seven new learning facilities. A comprehensive Early Childhood Education program was developed. Technology was upgraded and distributed throughout the school system. And Union City students rose to become among the highest-scoring on New Jersey State Standardized Exams for all urban districts in New Jersey.
Reassess for success
As a new superintendent in 2003, Sanger immediately brought together everyone involved in the education process in Union City to review the curricula as well as the physical school system.
“We assessed where we were at as far as educational programs, instruction, the physical state of the school, the learning environments,” he said. “The number one thing we realized that in order to improve as a district we had to improve instruction. We had to identify how to work with at-risk students, many of whom were children from challenging socio-economic environments – basically poor – and we had to work not only on the educational but the social and emotional aspects.”
During Sanger’s 11 years as school superintendent, Union City went from being one of the state’s worst performing school districts to one of the highest-achieving school systems in New Jersey.
Engaging social workers, counselors, and child study teams, the district reached out to families and got them involved. The curricula were revised in alignment with New Jersey’s core content standards and teachers trained in how best to deliver the content, with the goal being more than rote memorization.
“The application of knowledge is far more important than the acquisition of knowledge,” said Sanger.
Expanding the system
One of 31 “Abbott districts” in New Jersey (now known as SDA districts, for Schools Development Authority), Union City received increased funding from the state. “As a high needs district we met the intent of the Supreme Court ruling and were awarded funding, which allowed us to provide opportunity to close the achievement gap. It leveled the playing field for the urban child,” said Sanger.
“That opened up so many different opportunities that maybe we would not have without Abbot funding,” he added.
Union City partnered with different colleges and universities to provide students with an introduction to the college experience. “We set up what we call a blueprint for sustained academic achievement,” Sanger said. “We realized we’re doing a lot of good things, but in pieces. So pulled together all of our best practices to make one blueprint we can all follow based on our successes.”
In part due to the Abbott funding, seven new learning centers were added in the 12 years that Sanger was superintendent.
“We got funding for a new high school, which became Union City High School,” he said. “When we reorganized in 2009 we were able to bring both Emerson and Union Hill High Schools together. There were two high schools for 89 years, an 89-year [football] rivalry on Thanksgiving day.”
The new school, however, did not have room for all the students, so Jose Marti Academy was created for ninth graders. “Statistics show that many dropouts are on or about the ninth grade level,” Sanger explained. “We wanted to address their needs and prevent dropouts, to keep and maintain their interest.” School-based services were established to meet not only their academic needs but their emotional needs to keep them in school.
Technology was also improved throughout the district. “Utilizing state funding effectively, we were able to provide students at various grade levels with laptops, iPads, Smart Boards,” Sanger said. “And all teachers with laptops. With that comes infrastructure: fiber optics, WiFi. It took a lot of investment.”
“I’m happy to say all schools are well equipped with technology to enhance the learning process,” he said, adding: “Technology is not the driver but it can help. Still the most important thing is what happens between student and teacher.”
“When I left college I came back to Union City,” Sanger reflected. “It gave me great opportunity. I was interested in education. I liked athletics. I was able to work in the high school and be a basketball coach.”
That was February of 1974. Seven years later Sanger became principal in Union City’s Robert Waters Elementary School.
“Then in 1999 I had the opportunity to become assistant supervisor of schools,” he said. “That timed perfectly with the Abbott ruling to provide three- and four-year-olds in New Jersey with preschool education.”
The problem was that Union City had no room for the new children in the existing schools.
Assigned to oversee the implementation, Sanger collaborated closely with the previously independent day care centers in Union City to establish relationships. “Working with them, we turned day cares into learning centers, not just ‘babysitting,’” he said. “Now I’m proud to say we have 35 of them in Union City some 12 years later. We care for over 1,800 three- and four-year-olds.”
Looking back over his 41 years in the Union City school system, Sanger said, “I had a great run.
The institution of Union City was great to me. The educational system was great to me. I had an opportunity to achieve many things, with support from the mayor and senator, the Board of Education. It was a great collaboration.”
With two adopted sons going to high school and college, he feels it’s time to move on. “I’d like to be part of their college experience,” he said.
“I was fortunate to have great people around me,” he concluded. “The school level people, the principals and teachers, they truly make the success happen. One of the secrets of Union City is that we’ve always had stability, continuity, and long term investment, meaning that almost all the administrators and educational leaders came through the system in Union City. Almost 100 percent of the administrators were taught in our system, were students in our system, they came through the ranks so to speak. That led to love for the district and community. I’m thankful to the Board of Education for allowing me to be part of that.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.